Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Rosetta Stone ~ Discovered July 15, 1799

The Rosetta Stone is an Ancient Egyptian artifact which was instrumental in advancing modern understanding of hieroglyphic writing. The stone is a Ptolemaic era stele with carved text made up of three translations of a single passage: two in Egyptian language scripts (hieroglyphic and Demotic) and one in classical Greek. It was created in 196 BC, discovered by the French in 1799 at Rosetta and contributed greatly to the deciphering of the principles of hieroglyph writing in 1822 by the British scientist Thomas Young and the French scholar Jean-François Champollion. Comparative translation of the stone assisted in understanding many previously undecipherable examples of hieroglyphic writing. The text on the stone is a decree from Ptolemy V, describing the repealing of various taxes and instructions to erect statues in temples.


In preparation for Napoleon's 1798 campaign in Egypt, the French founded the Institut de l'Égypte in Cairo which brought 167 scientists and archaeologists to the region. French Army engineer Captain Pierre-François Bouchard discovered the stone sometime – the sources are not specific – in mid-July 1799, while guiding construction work at Fort Julien near the Egyptian port city of Rashid (Rosetta). The Napoleonic army was so awestruck by this unheralded spectacle that, according to a witness, "It halted of itself and, by one spontaneous impulse, grounded its arms." (As quoted by Robert Claiborne, The Birth of Writing [1974], p. 24.) After Napoleon returned in 1799, 167 scholars remained behind with French troops which held off British and Ottoman attacks. In March 1801, the British landed on Aboukir Bay and scholars carried the Stone from Cairo to Alexandria alongside the troops of Jacques-Francois Menou. French troops in Cairo capitulated on June 22, and in Alexandria on August 30.

After the surrender, a dispute arose over the fate of French archaeological and scientific discoveries in Egypt. De Menou refused to hand them over, claiming they belonged to the Institute. British General John Hely-Hutchinson, 2nd Earl of Donoughmore, refused to relieve the city until de Menou gave in. Newly arrived scholars Edward Daniel Clarke and William Richard Hamilton agreed to check the collections in Alexandria and found many artifacts that the French had not revealed.

When Hutchinson claimed all materials as a property of the British Crown, a French scholar, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, said to Clarke and Hamilton that they would rather burn all their discoveries — referring ominously to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria — than turn them over. Hutchinson finally agreed that items such as biology specimens would be the scholars' private property. De Menou regarded the stone as his private property and hid it.

How exactly the Stone came to British hands is disputed. Colonel Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner, who escorted the stone to Britain, claimed later that he had personally seized it from de Menou and carried it away on a gun carriage. Clarke stated in his memoirs that a French scholar and an officer had quietly given up the stone to him and his companions in a Cairo back street. French scholars departed later with only imprints and plaster casts of the stone.

Turner brought the stone to Britain aboard the captured French frigate L'Egyptienne in February 1802. On March 11, it was presented to the Society of Antiquaries of London and Stephen Weston played a major role in the early translation. Later it was taken to the British Museum, where it remains to this day. Inscriptions painted in white on the artifact state "Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801" on the left side and "Presented by King George III" on the right.

The stone is 114.4 centimetres (45.0 in) high at its highest point, 72.3 centimetres (28.5 in) wide, and 27.9 centimetres (11.0 in) thick. It is unfinished on its sides and reverse. Weighing approximately 760 kilograms (1,700 lb), it was originally thought to be granite or basalt but is currently described as granodiorite of a dark pinkish-gray color. The stone has been on public display at The British Museum since 1802.


I've seen the Rosetta Stone several times at the British Museum. The last time was a few days before Sheridan & Sylvie's wedding in Nantes four years ago.

The De Young Museum in San Francisco had a Tutankhamen Exhibit two years ago. S & S saw it when they were here for a wedding . They weren't so impressed. It wasn't a very large show. I saw the same exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia four years ago last May when I was East for the Point to Point horse race in Wilmington, Delaware. On my free Monday I had planned to go into NYC to see the Venetian show at the Met, but since it was closed on Mondays, I went to the King Tut show instead. (It turned out I was able to see the Venice & Islam Exhibit at the Doges' Palace in Venice a few months later. It couldn't have worked out better!)

I was glad to see the Tutankhamen show in Philadelphia; but it wasn't as extensive as two previous ones I had seen. The first was at the Franklin Institute in the mid 1960's when the impressive throne-like chair was featured. The second was at the old DeYoung Museum here in San Francisco thirty-one years ago. It was a far more extensive exhibit. It featured the glorious golden mask, frequently shown as the cover shot on countless books.

I had gone to that show twice before with incredibly bothersome crowds, before Chanticleer (then in its first year) was asked to sing at a cocktail party for then new mayor Dianne Feinstein in a tent outside the DeYoung. We sang in horrible acoustics with a single hand held mic. It was totally useless...BUT as an unanticipated consequence, the twelve of us --in white tie and tails-- had the splendid opportunity to walk through the exhibit entirely by ourselves (of course with the standard number of security guards keeping watch over the priceless objects).

I was then able to figure out why the golden mask was so deep. It wasn't like a Venetian Carnevale mask as I had thought; that is, the mask was not directly on top of Tutankhamen's face. Instead, the mummy's head was at the very back of the headdress -- at least over a foot away. I had never gotten close enough to see that when I had gone to the exhibit with the crush of crowds.


jutka said...

I've seen the Rosetta Stone also, what a great experience!

Anonymous said...


Titian in the Frari (Venezia)